Poll: Americans Searching for Pain Relief

ByABC News
May 5, 2005, 5:47 PM

May 9, 2005 -- -- More than half of Americans live with chronic or recurrent pain, with broad numbers saying it interferes with their activities, mood and enjoyment of life -- sparking a vast search for relief, from medication to bed rest, yoga or the palliative power of prayer.

An exclusive survey by ABC News, USA Today and the Stanford University Medical Center finds that, excluding minor annoyances, just under half of adults have experienced pain in the last two weeks, and nearly four in 10 do so on a regular basis.

Six in 10 Americans rate their last experience with pain as moderate or worse, and for two in 10 -- about 40 million individuals -- it was severe. Nineteen percent suffer chronic pain, meaning ongoing pain that's lasted three months or more. An additional 34 percent report recurrent pain; the rest say their usual pain experience is acute, or short-term.

This national survey paints an extensive portrait of pain in America, measuring not just prevalence and severity but also where it hurts (back and knee pain are most common), whom it effects (pain is much more frequent among older adults), and its source, impact and treatment. The survey supports a weeklong reporting project by ABC News and USA Today, "The Fight Against Pain."

Pain impacts are broad: Sufferers are less likely than other Americans to be very satisfied with their lives overall, and much more likely to say they're in bad health. About four in 10 Americans say pain interferes with their mood, activities, sleep, ability to do work or enjoyment of life. Two-thirds report interference with any one of these.

Sizable majorities of those who've tried various relief therapies report that they work at least somewhat well -- ranging from medications to heating pads or ice packs to less prevalent methods such as massage therapy, seeing a chiropractor, or homeopathic and herbal remedies. But many fewer say any of these work "very well." Even prescription drugs fall short: While six in 10 Americans have taken prescription drugs for pain, just 51 percent of them say such medications have worked very well.

Concerns about the efficacy of treatment also are reflected in assessments of medical care. Sixty-three percent of Americans have spoken with a doctor or other medical professional about their pain. But while nine in 10 say the doctor understood the problem, many fewer, 59 percent, say they got a great deal or good amount of pain relief. And fewer still, just 31 percent, report a "great deal" of relief.

Similarly, while eight in 10 report at least some control over their pain, fewer -- half -- feel they have "a lot" of control.

Problems peak in the chronic, severe and frequent pain populations. People in these high-pain groups are vastly more likely than others to report negative impacts of pain on their lives, and much less likely to feel in control of their pain. (These hold true even when controlled for age.)

People with chronic pain also are more likely than others to have tried various remedies -- but much less likely to say those remedies work very well.

Chronic or frequent pain sufferers are much more apt to have spoken with a doctor or other health professional about the problem -- about 90 percent have. But, again, they're less likely to have gotten relief: Just 48 percent of frequent pain sufferers, and 50 percent of those with chronic pain, say they got at least a good amount of relief after seeing a medical professional. Relief rates are higher -- 66 percent and 68 percent, respectively -- among infrequent or acute pain sufferers who sought professional care.

There's other evidence that doctors do better dealing with acute pain than with more persistent pain problems. Among acute pain patients, 79 percent say the doctor understood their problem very well. Fewer chronic pain patients, 63 percent, say so.

Nearly six in 10 Americans, 58 percent, say they've tried prayer to deal with pain, about as many as have taken prescription drugs. And of those who've tried it, half say prayer has worked very well for them in terms of pain relief -- tying it with prescription drugs as the top-ranked approach for efficacy.

While prayer is clearly a source of comfort to many in pain, it's not a replacement for other therapies. People who've prayed for pain relief are more apt than others also to take prescription drugs for pain; to have tried other pain therapies; to have seen a doctor for pain; and to report chronic, severe or frequent pain. Prayer thus looks like an additional approach for those with greater pain problems, rather than a replacement.

And as with other remedies, prayer works best on easier problems. Among people with acute pain, 61 percent say praying for relief worked very well for them; among those with chronic pain, many fewer, 37 percent, say prayer works.

Women are more apt than men to have prayed for pain relief: Sixty-six percent of women have done it (62 percent of women under 50, rising to 71 percent of women age 50 and over). That compares with 49 percent of men (with no difference by age). Praying also is most prevalent among blacks, and in the South.

A quarter of Americans say their last pain experience was with back pain, making it far and away the leading area of pain, followed by pain in the knee (12 percent), headaches or migraine (9 percent), and shoulder and leg pain (7 percent each.) Together these account for 60 percent of all pain by location.

Back pain is No. 1 across most demographic groups, with the notable exception of women under age 50. It peaks among men (30 percent say their last pain experience was back pain, compared with 20 percent of women), and particularly among men age 30-49, who may run the dual risk of being a bit older but still quite active. Back pain is the most-cited pain across all pain groups, peaking slightly among chronic pain sufferers.

Women younger than 50 are an exception: They're as likely to cite headache or migraine (20 percent) as back pain (18 percent) as their last pain experience. At age 50 and up, back pain leads for both sexes.